About Variation West This last and greatest novel by Ardyth Kennelly--completed in 1994 and finally published in 2014--has all the wit, warmth, and storytelling genius of Kennelly's five previously published novels, but also the darker themes and more critical views that she was not able to express openly in that more reserved era of the 1940s and 1950s. As with her previous books, Kennelly drew upon her childhood memories of Salt Lake City and the stories she heard from her relatives about life in Utah of the nineteenth century. But Variation West takes us much farther, through the 1930s (when Kennelly herself came of age) and into the new era of the 1960s.
Who’s in this book?
a proud young woman who educates herself and daringly seizes a career
her big sister, who fights for her man and keeps him safe
a doctor with a grand manner but slightly slippery morals
a Paiute man puzzled by the changes in his world but always doing what he must
the Mormon leader Brigham Young, seen from afar and not so nicely as his followers would have it
a millionaire much admired but used to getting his way with women and everything else
a bitterly disillusioned madam and her “boarders”
a religious convert so fervent that he commits an unbelievable act of mutilation
a woman who loves and loves and loves and is finally rewarded
an impulsive polygamist who takes one wife after another
a gay English hairdresser with roots in the French Revolution
a frivolous actress whose naive self-confidence leads to tragedy
an unearthly albino child connected with many terrible events
a little Australian girl who earnestly gathers and saves another family’s history
film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, in cameo appearances
a millionairess and her daughter, both desperately (and comically) convinced that they’re actually poor
a woman with an insatiable hunger to know and understand the world
her gorgeous cousin, enslaved by the cruel chains of Beauty and her own need to be admired
another cousin who finds his passion in telling an ancestor’s bloody story
a warrior who sacrifices his eyes for his beliefs
a dangerously deranged young Mormon Fundamentalist just back from Vietnam
a Catholic priest with a secret desire
a gay composer from New York who outrages strait-laced Salt Lake City in the most hilarious way
and many lesser characters, all of them delightfully true to life.
What’s in this book?
a city so beloved that the author takes us, by enchantment, to its streets and places
a building so beloved it’s almost a character itself
historical events that are always present, always happening: “Once upon a time there was no time and it was then that…”
a story of an old massacre that’s almost told three times in art but never does get told
a story of another massacre: women’s bodies and lives sacrificed to Beauty
comedy, tragedy, and quotidian life, from the 1860s to the 1960s, all mixed together in a sumptuous book that’s like a grand collage, a grand procession, a pageant, a stage play, an epic movie.
How can you tell the difference between fiction and real life?
Kennelly explains the difference near the end of the book:
“The trouble with fiction, it’s too reasonable. Real life isn’t reasonable at all.” VARIATION WEST is real life—transmuted into fiction.
ON THE COVER: The two women represent the fact that the book has two major female characters from different eras. The top image is an 1877 rendering by S. H. Redmond of the arrival of the ill-fated Fancher-Baker wagon train at Mountain Meadows, Utah, in September 1857. Cover and interior design by Alissa Beddow
A summary of the book: Thirteen-year-old Hindle Lee, her mother dead and her father on the run after leading the Mormons’ 1857 massacre of a wagon train at Mountain Meadows, goes to work in a convalescent home and eventually takes on a career as an “eclectic physician of women’s ailments.” Her sister Lucitie travels to England and back and becomes part of a four-generation hairdressing dynasty. Through the comic, strange, and tragic stories of Hindle’s patients, and through the authentic speech, sense of place, and experience of historical events that Kennelly re-creates for us, Salt Lake City of the nineteenth century comes alive. Drawing upon her sharp memory and meticulous research, the author takes us from ordinary households to rich mansions, from wagons to motorcars, from brightly lit Main Street to the dark inner expanses of the old Constitution Building. The stories of that wondrous past, made mythic through the mind of a little Australian girl, are handed down to Hindle’s granddaughter Rosetta, who comes of age in the changing times of the 1920s. With a spirit hungry for knowledge, Rosetta becomes a keen observer of the workings of the world and the human psyche. She and her cousin Lavonne, working as beauty operators and never separated for long, must deal all their lives with the hard truths about men, women, and beauty, and with different kinds of fanaticism and violence. All these elements are drawn together in a final reverberating event that only an artist could make meaningful.